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Problem Child: Language and Culture

Learning a foreign language goes beyond the skills of being able to communicate using different sounds and grammar patterns.

When you deeply immerse yourself in the culture and the language, you that the two are more deeply intertwined than you ever thought.

We don’t always realize it when we just speak our native language, but language inherently includes a culture’s philosophy, history and quirks.

In my journey to learn Mandarin, I have discovered a few examples of how Chinese culture is reflected in Mandarin.

Of course, they have more words for noodles, rice and tofu than I could ever imagine because their cuisine is centered around those products and very few words for bread products (i.e. biscuit, roll, cookie and cracker are all basically the same word), which were introduced relatively recently.

But there are more interesting differences in words that affect their daily lives and culture.

For example, the word 问题 – wèntí means both “problem” and
“question.”
While the two words are also relatively synonymous in English, they DO have different connotations. “Problem” means something is wrong and needs fixing, and is usually troublesome and unwanted. Whereas, a “question” is something seeking more information, thinking, and solving, and is not inherently good or bad.

The fact that Mandarin lumps these two words together is very telling of their cultural philosophy towards questioning their environment and their approach to problems. I’ve experienced this philosophy firsthand in my many run-ins with the Chinese bureaucracy. If you approach a desk or a service person with a “question,” they usually respond defensively as if you had confronted them with a “problem.” So, the customer service skills are lacking in China.

It also affects their political lives. In their recent history, the Chinese government has tried to limit its citizens’ critical thinking in order to maintain some control, hence “problems” and “questions” having the same meaning. Basically, when people form “questions,” they’re starting “problems” and threatening the balance and peace of society.

Then again, when I (as an ignorant foreigner) ask a “question” about the difference between this thin tofu and that porous tofu or the fat noodles with the thin noodles, the poor Chinese waiter has every right to consider me a “problem.”

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